Most artists work from a studio where the only threat may be a cell phone, the kids or their own lethargy. Beau Carey’s studio plunges to 25 degrees below zero framed by a trio of armed polar bear guards.
The University of New Mexico adjunct professor has been an artist-in-residence in both Norway’s high Arctic Circle and Alaska’s Denali National Park.
In such conditions, his working uniform consists of long underwear, a down shirt and a down coat covered with a water-repellent shell. His footwear is knee-high waterproof boots equipped for up to 40 degrees below zero.
His first trek into the frozen north was in 2012, when he was one of 28 artists aboard a tall ship in the Arctic, where he created oil sketches. Last March, he traveled to Denali with 25 artists.
Painting in such a hostile environment produces marks reflecting the surroundings in a way a photograph cannot, he says. A canvas painted in 45 mph winds is embedded with dust. Decisions change when an artist is tired, hungry and exposed.
But Carey insists his interest lies beyond places that would drive most people to a sauna. The Arctic is veiled in a complex ecological history wrapped in contentiousness.
The results of his efforts are on view at 516 ARTS beginning Saturday, Nov. 21as part of its season-long exhibition on climate change. The concurrent show also features “Bewilderness,” the paintings of Bernalillo artist Scott Greene. While Carey focuses on the isolation of snow and ice, Greene turns his attention to trash.
Carey, 35, says being on site in such difficult environments is essential to create work that cannot be replicated in the studio.
“It was daylight for 12 hours,” he said. “The shadows would move in odd ways. Within 20 minutes, they would reverse course.”
But he welcomes the challenges. He has painted beneath the fireworks of the Northern Lights wearing two pairs of gloves underneath his mittens.
“Oils start to get unworkable at minus 4; so do my hands,” he said with a laugh. “You can extend it if you add a little walnut oil.”
The frigid environment forced him to make different artistic decisions.
“The elements creep in,” Carey explained. “The light might be in your eyes. You’re standing in wind. I can’t do details. It’s counter to my training.”
Carey realized he would work outdoors after he attended his first plein-air class. He earned his master of fine arts degree at the University of New Mexico. He learned to work in uncomfortable situations.
“I don’t get cold,” he said. “I enjoy camping in the winter.”
In the Arctic, the dryness of the air coupled with the cold warps both distances and perception.
“A glacier that looks a half mile away is actually five miles away,” he said. “It’s the only time in my life I’ve seen clarity distorted.”
In Alaska, he was one of the very few tourists to see the top of the usually shrouded 20,310-foot Denali, so high that it produces its own weather. It proved the most frigid environment with a nighttime temperature of 25 below zero.
His travels produced stripped-down landscapes that seem more metaphorical than literal.
Organizers of the Arctic trip billed the area as the last virgin wilderness, a claim he contradicts.
“There’s all this evidence of human intervention,” he said. “Bowhead whales used to be so common. People used to say they could walk on their backs between the straits. In 2011-2012, they finally saw the first one in 100 years.
“There’s a couple paintings dealing directly with that,” he continued. “Sometimes there would be a little blood washing up on shore. It was the absence that was so strong. There were several whaler’s graves. You could almost look down and see skeletons because they were piled with rocks.
“Norway is one of the three countries that still hunts whales,” he added. “They even serve blubber on the cruise ships.”
He spotted his first polar bear from the ship, but encountered none on the frozen ground.
“It was eating a seal,” Carey said. “When we came back three days later, it was still eating the same seal.”
While Carey focuses on unpopulated landscapes, Greene confronts the garbage left by human habitation.
His “Bewilderness” opens with the humor and horror of “La Bajada Bluff” as a landfill packed with oil barrels, obsolete computer screens and the tossed debris of generations. A house tilts precariously atop this trash mountain as a buffalo soars off the cliff.
“Comedy is tragedy inverted,” the Bernalillo artist says.
“For years, I would drive out to the county dump,” Greene said. “The garbage starts to pile up along the road because people don’t want to pay at the dump. The garbage is packed down and it’s deep.
“If you take that drive now, there’s all these nice houses right next door to the dump,” he continued. “There’s no water or sewer, so you dig a well. I’m thinking, ‘I would never drink any of the water out there’.”
From there, he snownballed into geologic striations as he hiked La Bajada with his in-laws, who happen to be scientists.
“That produced the idea of what materials are we adding?” he said. “I could imagine a buffalo hunt where you chase the buffalo over the edge. So one thing leads to the next.”
His “UV Cell Tree” shows a bent cell phone tower entwined in plastic blue vines, a “Thank you” grocery bag waving at the end like a flag.
“It’s become a snag, which is a dead tree that becomes a habitat for animals.”
Greene’s pastiches take inspiration from the classics, then twist them into contemporary allegories with a heavy dose of black humor.
“It offers some kind of hope or solace,” he said. “It’s like listening to Jon Stewart. He’s really funny, but he talks about serious things. That, and I can’t take myself too seriously.”
Two artists. Two contrasting styles and messages. Both fit within the framework of 516 ARTS’ season-long theme “HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change Though the Arts.”